TAIPEI -- Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang played safe in electing veteran politician Eric Chu as its new leader this weekend, keeping the party on a China-friendly trajectory that is at odds with a majority on the democratic island.
Chu was quickly congratulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping. He replied by reaffirming the so-called 1992 consensus, an agreement between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party that posits China and Taiwan are part of the same country.
Xi has congratulated previous KMT leaders on their election, but last year he snubbed the newly elected Johnny Chiang, who had been portrayed as a possible reformer. Chiang, however, came in a distant third on Saturday behind Chu and Chang Ya-chung, an academic who called for even closer ties with Beijing and eventual unification.
That both pro-China candidates got most votes in the election suggests that party members, who number around 400,000 and are mostly aged over 40, still support views that have fallen ideologically out with the broad consensus in Taiwan.
A 2020 survey by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council found that 84% of respondents felt cross-strait relations should occur "without political preconditions" such as the 1992 consensus. Repeated polling by the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University has shown the vast majority of Taiwanese want to maintain de facto sovereignty.
Albert Shihyi Chiu, an associate professor at the department of political science at Tunghai University, said that Chu's election shows that the KMT is a party that is looking backward. He added there are early signals the new chairman is playing to the most-conservative elements of the KMT.
"There are two types of people in the KMT: those with authoritarian nostalgia, and those in big business or have vested interests in China," Chiu said. "Some KMT members have made a lot of money in China and so they have to compromise their original stance in support of Taiwan. Instead, they have to say something good about China. Eric Chu realized this, and he is stuck."
Chu, still seen as a popular politician, is a former mayor of Taipei New City and served as party chairman from 2015-2016. He ran unsuccessfully against Tsai Ing-wen in the 2016 presidential election after replacing another candidate at the last minute.
The KMT, however, is struggling with a lack of funds after many of its assets were frozen in 2016 by the newly formed Transitional Justice Commission, which investigates ill-gotten gains and other crimes dating back to Taiwan's martial law era.
The party also appears have lost direction since the start of 2020, when Tsai was re-elected in a landslide.
The reform agenda of Chiang, the previous KMT leader, is widely believed to have been stalled by higher-ups in the party including former President Ma Ying-jeou. Under Chiang's leadership, the KMT focused primarily on criticizing the government's efforts to tackle the pandemic and develop a domestic vaccine, but now it may turn a corner because Chu wields more influence.
"One of the biggest struggles for the KMT is squaring the disconnect between what the CCP wants and what the Taiwanese electorate want," said Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a U.S.-based think tank focused on the Asia-Pacific.
"To me, the election outcome shows that certain factions in the KMT won out -- and the larger question of how to appeal to a broader swath of the population remains more or less unsettled, and will be something to watch for as Chu takes on his role as chair."